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Progressive Web Apps

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An introduction

keywords: greenfield, pwa, Gordian knot, apps, ios, android, app stores


This is an imagined conversation between me and Bob, Me being a front-end software engineer with 20 years of real world dev experience and a healthy scepticism that the kind of business person I’m talking to really has the ability, authority, acency, skill or will to actually implement what I’m talking about, even if they understand it enough to see why they should do it.

Bob., for imgination’s sake is my boss’s boss. He’s an owner & technical decision maker of a smallish company of 15 people who already operate a tech business which actually makes some money. He’s quite smug about that.

The business already has a desktop site, an android app and an iphone app. None of which really get used :) There are 3 separate code bases for each of those applications, requiring a team of at least 3 developers to maintain. My role here is the bottom of the pile. I’m a contractor whose ideas about how the entire business should be turned on it’s head to make it better are correctly viewed with as much scepticism as I have of them.

Even if this conversation were real, there is nowhere is can really go. No company is going to take the risk to rock the boat that they’ve spent years patching together. Fair enough. Would you?

The conversation

Me: Hey bob, are you ready for our meeting?

Bob: Just give me 10 minutes. You see, I’m very busy and important and it makes me feel good to make you twiddle your thumbs and wait for a bit

Me: No wuckers. I’ll be over here on my laptop. Ah! you’re ready now? great. Let’s start. I wanted to talk to you because I want to float an idea to you if you’re OK with that?

Bob: Great! We have a very open culture here and encourage conversation, blue sky thinking, agile development and all the other modern keyword buzz shit we read about on LinkedIn.

Me: Whatevs. So here’s the thing, Bob. The team I’m working with currently has someone looking after your website, another guy whose only job is the iPhone app, and that annoying dude in India who did the android app as a freelance job 2 years ago.

Oh yeh, and theres my boss, Head Of Development is who is stupily busy every minute of every day which is why you hired an expensive contractor like me to help out. Does that sound right?

Bob: Well, yeh. I wouldn’t have put it quite like that, Chris, but that’s broadly correct.

Me: Great. So as the guy who both pays the development costs and is responsible for delivering the product to the other stakeholders, do you think that your team’s productivity could be improved?

Bob: Yes of course

Me: I think so too. The team has become blocked and its now kicking a can down the street. No one is having much fun. As it happens one of the reasons for that is kind of a Gordian knot. Once that knot is cut, it would unblock the team’s productivity and allow your product to start growing again too

Bob: Sounds great, Chris. But it also sounds like a sales pitch and I’ve heard it all before, trust me. What is this one issue that rules them all?

Me: It is the fact that you have 3 different codebases, maintaining 3 different pieces of software. That is hard to do and leads to the product having different features on different platforms. Customer support is 3 times harder. Project Management is more complex and developmnet costs are 3x higher because you need a wide range of skills to do what you’re doing.

Bob: Well, yes, obviously. But that’s because in order for our apps to be able to run on phones with the features we need we need a native app which is distributed and updated via the App Stores so that they can be installed by our customers. You can’t avoid having 3 separate apps.

Me: Not true. Was true back when this model of doing things evolved, but not true now. Now there are Progressive Web Apps (PWA).

Bob: Never heard of it

Me: Yeh, it’s still a bit new and techie. Actually, not all that new. The technology was introduced by Google 5 years ago and is pretty mature and robust now. Anyway, you want to hear the top level bullet points, right?

Progressive Web Apps are user experiences that have the reach of the web, and are: Reliable - Load instantly and never show the downasaur, even in uncertain network conditions. Fast - Respond quickly to user interactions with silky smooth animations and no janky scrolling. Engaging - Feel like a natural app on the device, with an immersive user experience. This new level of quality allows Progressive Web Apps to earn a place on the user’s home screen.

Bob: So all those features like uploading an image from the camera, PWA’s can do that?

Me: Yes. With some caveats.

Bob: What’s the catch?

Me: Well, even 5 yearsold it is still a comparatively new technology, and that does mean some friction.

For instance there are 2 App Stores, Google & Apple. Google invented PWA and are happy to ditch the Playstore. Apple don’t like to be pushed around by Google, and so have purposly withheld certain PWA features from their iphones which make it seem like a poor man’s option.

Features such as the ability to send push notifications when the app is running in the background. These features are considered vital (for some reason). The PWA reply to that is … if your device doesn’t support it, you don’t even know the feature is there. Simples

Bob: Yes, we do have push notifications on both android and iphone and a big, ugly backend to handle that too. It’s a vital feature that our customers simply can’t live without. That would be a dealbreaker.

Me: Fucktard. Oh, I’m sorry, did I say that out loud? Carry on, Bob…. you were saying?

Bob: Why isn’t everyone doing this?

Me: They are. Some pretty massive businesses have taken this approach. A few examples?

Bob: Right. So let me get it straight, you’re saying we should drop everything right now, throw away everything we ever did for the last 10 years… and do it your way?

Me: Correct.

Bob: Who is going to build that single, simple React frontend, how long will it take and how much will it cost me?

Me: I could do it for you at $800/day if you like. With that comes a guarantee that I will never actually allow the project to be finished, because why would I?

I’ll just tinker about with fun stuff and feed you peanuts getting paid silly money. When I get bored I’ll leave.

What might work out better is for you to pay me that same money to build a team of people who will be able to carry on if and when I do leave. If you have any false ideas about the likelyhood of me not doing that… please take a look at my public work history on linkedin

Bob: Good point. OK, Chris, what’s in it for you?

Me: Come to think of it, Bob, not much, huh? I mean… I could work my ass off for 6 months and deliver this project for you, pocket my 60K and look for another similar project I guess.

If I had a stake in the outcome which allowed me to continue that stake and still move on to new greenfield projects…. well, that could work

Bob: Sounds very complicated and non-standard. Far easier to stay with how things are. Let me think about it and talk to my collegues and

Me: No wuckers. I’ll get my coat.